The air conditioning dies all of a sudden. It’s not a silent death, though, but a clumsy, loud one. Like an empty can bouncing down a stairway. The smell of burning plastic fires up his nostrils.
“Cilia” he says in a stuffy and choked voice. He coughs a couple of times, and sits up to try again. Pushes his chest out, prepares to roar, like a lion: “Ciliaaaa!!!” He thinks to have failed, it sounded whiny instead of powerful. Did it? Did it sound like a little girl whining? Did anyone hear? Maybe no one noticed.
Cilia is nowhere to be found, not her shadow, not the ghost of her. He doesn’t even know where the impulse to call for her came from. Maybe because she’s the only one who manages to get things done around here.
No one answers.
He gives up, and lets his dead weight inflict an unnecessary strain on the bed as he falls on his back.
The sheets are heavy and still cold. It’s late, much later than Nicolás had hoped. For some reason he can’t manage get out of bed before 8:30. There would be so much he could get done if he woke up a couple hours earlier. Shouldn’t the President be the first person to wake up in the country? Wasn’t that what Chávez used to say? Chávez used to wake earlier than anyone he knew. Maybe because he was llanero, Barinas folk must have a special gene for that. To rise early and go milk the cows or something. Yeah, waking up early was never a problem for Chávez. But then again, nothing was much of a problem for Chávez, was it?
Damn you, Chávez.
Nicolás torments himself with these thoughts for another half hour, he puts his head under the pillow, his thighs get sweaty so he puts another pillow between them, he can feel the bags under his eyes as they fill with liquid. Pus he thinks, it must be pus, it can’t be water. Estoy podrido. I must be sick, I wish I was sick.
At 9:00 he gives it one last shot: “Gerardo!!!”
The door of the Presidential bedroom bursts wide open, and Gerardo rushes in with his unusually large laptop bag strapped to his back.
“Gerardo, coño, where were you? Do you know if Cilia asked that guy what’s his name to fix the air conditioning?”
“Yes sir. She did, but there were just no parts to fix it properly, so he improvised.”
“And it broke again, sir.”
Gerardo wasn’t late. He arrived at the Presidential residence before daybreak. He finds that waking up before everyone else gives him a couple of hours to get ahead on his job, and it’s during those precious precious hours that Gerardo gets time to cross stuff from his to-do list. Once the President is awake, there’s not much time to concentrate. That morning Gerardo was drafting responses to important requests from cabinet members, the Party, and the Military.
From over 600 emails and texts from different phones, he flagged 32 as urgent. Urgent messages are those that get an answer. Not like Gerardo takes any crucial decisions, his orders are to identify those messages, write a decent “I’ll write you back” response, and find a place in the President’s schedule to address those requests.
Maduro doesn’t have a phone, he has a Gerardo.
While Gerardo selects the President’s clothes, Maduro takes a shower. A long, slow, ineffective shower. He then looks at himself in the mirror, and the bags are still there. Coño. I wish I was sick. I wish I was dying.
Gerardo walks in the bathroom with a pair of shiny black shoes in one hand, and a yellow Guayabera-like shirt in the other.
“Let me take care of that, mister President.”
He pulls out a small makeup kit from his bag, and starts working diligently on covering the bags.
“Gerardo, I look like shit. My face. I must be rotting inside. My hair is getting gray faster than before.
“Your hair looks fine, sir. No need to dye it, the gray makes you look wiser.”
“Well, good luck on finding black hair dye in the pharmacy,” the President jokes as he manages to crack a half smile that vanishes quickly.
They leave the residence after lunch. Maduro has to make a public appearance, and they are going to plug the speech on national TV.
Jorge Rodríguez, Mayor of Caracas, rushes to Gerardo’s ear as soon as he sees Maduro: Métele un café, coño. Give him a coffee. A shot of rum. Whatever.
Gerardo is ready, he pulls out a small cooler filled with a black, bitter menjurje of his own making. He walks calmly to the President’s side, and he shoves two shots of the black stuff down his throat.
“Quema, coño.” It burns.
Then he hands the President a short script, not too detailed, but clear enough to provide him with a good balance of his usual talking points with current stuff: some recent international tragedy worthy of mentioning; recent local news; and the names of the most recent conspirators caught by the intelligence corps.
He’s wide awake now. He knows he has Gerardo to thank for, but he also knows the effects of the potion are temporary. He gets jittery: Vamos al aire! Why aren’t we on the air yet? I don’t have time to waste! I’m the President, carajo!
There’s a small crowd before him, he knows those faces, he knows he’s safe. A red light starts blinking, action!
Gerardo steps to the side of the stage, and pulls out a different cooler from the bag, he takes a sip of water, closes it, and carefully places the bottle in its place inside the bag. He likes it when the cameras are on because he can relax a bit, looks around, observes the crowd. This time, his ritual is interrupted by a man who grabs him firmly by the arm. It’s Diosdado Cabello, government party.
“Leíste la vaina? Did you read that thing I sent you?”
“Did you read it to him?”
“Enough with the monosyllabic answers, habla. What did he say?”
“He’s considering it and he’ll get back to you soon.”
“Nojoda, carajito. You know who I am, and he knows who I am. I give a crap of what issues he might have with the Minister, but I need him on board on this thing. I need an answer. Be sure to tell him that.”
As he answers, Gerardo stands to attention, and without giving him an official salute, he clicks his heels. He knows the military folk like to feel on top.
Diosdado reacts. Lets his arm go, and gives him a pat on the shoulder.
“You’re good, you’re one of the good ones. But if you don’t tell him la vaina que te dije, you’re fucked.”
He leaves Gerardo to take a seat in the front row of the crowd.
Maduro starts to feel that the effects of Gerardo’s potion are wearing off and he gets nervous. He is dizzy. Gerardo realizes it’s almost over, the President starts going irate on TV, and he rushes to speak to the camera crew. Maduro is relieved to see Gerardo’s thin face standing by the camera, he knows his guy is in charge, and that it’s time to drive it home. The director gives him a cue, and the President wraps it up.
Now, here’s where Gerardo’s job gets tricky. His task is to block every single interaction possible. Some Ministers know the drill and jump the President before the kid is able to get to him. The smarter ones, however, know who it is that handles Maduro’s agenda and form a wall before the thin man. But Gerardo is fast, and gracefully aikido’s past the wall of Ministers and slips between the two that flank the President, and is able to pull the huge man by the arm.
He drags him like a little boy who drags a kite twice his size, and sits him inside the armored SUV.
As the doors shut, isolating them from the rush of the getaway, the President looks at Gerardo.
“What would you do in my place? I’m sure you’d be great at my job. You’d be great at it. Or maybe it would be too simple for you. You think it would be easy for you? They think I do nothing. They don’t know how hard…”
“They don’t know how hard your life is,” interrupts Gerardo, “but still, you just need to go over those emails, or if you want I can send them directly. You have to give them an answer. And Diosdado is asking about the thing again.”
“You know. The thing. The thing he needs to solve right away before that other thing blows up.”
“Ay, coño. The thing. Can’t it wait for tomorrow?”
“Well, you’re the President.”
“Ok. Yes. Yes. I’m the President.”
The evening goes by in a flash. It’s 11:00 pm. Gerardo is almost ready to head home. He turns the TV on, leaves a tray with a snack on the bed, and opens a laptop and sets it on the desk, by an old CD player, for the President to review and OK the emails that are to be sent as response to the urgent messages.
Gerardo doesn’t bother the President with goodbyes, but he checks on him one last time before leaving. He is sitting on the floor with an old CD box on his legs. His hands are digging and suddenly pulls one triumphantly.
It’s a Grandes Exitos CD of Los Impala. He stands, and walks over to the desk to inserts it in the CD player. He sits. Puts on the headphones, Cilia’s acute hearing allows her to be bugged by Nicolas’ music from the other side of the house, and presses the play button. The first track is Con su blanca palidez, a version in Spanish of Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale. Nicolás tries to transport himself to a better time, when things were easier. Tries to relax, but he can’t. He glances at the Drafts Folder count in the computer screen: 1017. He shuts the screen. He can’t think, his thoughts are cloudy. Turns the volume up. I wish I was sick. I wish I was dying. The Big Bang Theory is playing on TV, Sheldon knocks on Penny’s door. He’s seen this episode before. It’s going to be a long long night.
“Pero todo con el tiempo
se acerca hacia un final
Porque todo marchitaba
cuando yo te vi marchar”Caracas Chronicles is 100% reader-supported. Support independent Venezuelan journalism by making a donation.